Who knew? Napoleon's birthplace Corsica is more Italian than French

The French island of Corsica is Italian in spirit with cobblestoned streets, stunning beaches, great hikes — and amazing pizza, writes Paula Louw

21 October 2018 - 00:00 By Paula Louw

Off the western coast of Italy lies an incredible, unspoilt and seemingly inconspicuous French island.
I had heard of the other more popular Mediterranean islands before, but when my friends suggested Corsica for a summer getaway, I had to open Google Maps. It was Napoleon's birthplace, but my knowledge didn't extend further than that.
I thus headed off with an open mind and few expectations. Although there are some airports on the island, reaching it by ferry was more economical and romantic, albeit time-consuming.
The ferry leaves from Livorno, a port city in Italy, and arrives in Bastia on Corsica's northeast coast. Hiring a car is highly recommended here - the public transport system is not extensive and a car gives you more freedom to discover secluded spots. The island is relatively large: it would take three hours to traverse it north to south if you drove without stopping.
That would be unthinkable though, as there are too many idyllic beaches, quaint hamlets and panoramas to entice you to slow your journey down.
The island is as varied as it is vast. We were there for one week but I could have spent many more exploring.
Nevertheless, what we did manage to see in this short time left me in awe.
We stayed in Santa-Lucia-di-Moriani, an unassuming town on the east coast. We didn't know much about the island so we based our accommodation choice on price and distance from the beach rather than touristic amenities. Although there were some hotels, it truly had a local feel.
In truth, the beach was not as picturesque as others we visited during our trip, but it was close to hiking trails and mountains, and relatively centrally located.
We hiked through San-Nicolao to the Cascade de l'Ucelluline waterfall. The steep climb up the mountain is rewarding, snaking through peaceful hamlets which have stunning panoramas of the coast below and beautiful buildings including the Baroque-style church, Eglise de San-Nicolao.
Our hired car wasn't a 4x4 so we couldn't get to some of the more remote beaches. Still, we saw a plethora of others so I don't feel as if we missed out.
We had day trips to all corners of the island - there were countless highlights.
One perfect afternoon was spent enjoying bottles of Pietra (the local beer) on the golden sands of the virtually empty Tarco beach, and then enjoying pizzas at Le Pacha, with sweeping views of the bay at sunset.
Although it's a semi-autonomous region of France, Corsican culture is quite similar to Italian due to centuries of Genoese rule, and thus pizza offerings are in abundance.
The Corsican dialect is similar to Italian and the nationalism movement is very active.
Our group's firm favourite was Saint-Florent on the north coast. We got there as the town was waking up, enjoyed breakfast next to the yachts at the docks, walked the cobblestoned streets up to the citadel and drank in the views of the bay.
A small path below then led to the most incredible little cove, where you could lounge on deck-chairs on the rocks and dip into the turquoise sea when you felt the desire.
Some days took us away from these idyllic seaside villages and beaches to dramatic craggy peaks and dense forests ideal for hiking. The mountains here are substantial - driving up them is not for anyone inclined toward motion-sickness. In fact, in winter this is a ski destination.
As you ascend the passes and travel through small villages with picturesque churches, citadels and narrow alleyways, you feel like you've entered a completely different country, let alone the same island.
We hiked to the ruins of the Vivario fort, and then did the popular Cascade des Anglais trail, and saw many casual hikers as well as more serious ones on the GR20 - the famously strenuous trail traversing the island. Even though it was busy, it was still very peaceful and there was plenty of space to laze around on the rocks below the waterfall.
Nearly 40% of the island is a national park, which has helped retain its charm. In a week I didn't see one Starbucks or MacDonald's, and I was never once hassled to buy a tourist-boat cruise - a stark contrast to other Mediterranean destinations I've visited.
I long for the next time I can explore this rich island paradise, hiking to dramatic waterfalls and ruined forts, exploring ancient streets and citadels, snorkelling in clear blue coves, and drinking a Pietra sundowner on the golden sands - all in a single day.
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